As an actor, you should take it as a bad sign when you play the title character and appear in every scene of a movie, yet you get second billing under someone who only has 15 minutes of screen time. That’s what happened to Brigitte Nielsen in “Red Sonja”: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s barely in the film, has his name listed before hers in the opening credits. She suffers all the indignities inherent in starring in the movie, then doesn’t even get top billing for her troubles. No wonder she was depressed enough to marry Sylvester Stallone.
“Red Sonja” was based on a comic book. That’s true of 97% of movies made today, but in 1985 it was uncommon. It was an unusual comic book, too, in that it focused on a buxom female warrior from the Dark Ages rather than a modern-day Spandex-clad super-powered vigilante. I do not know whether the comic book is still around, or care. Seriously! That information is no doubt readily available, yet I am not interested in having it.
When the film begins, a number of terrible things have just happened to Sonja, who is called Red Sonja because her Nordic heritage causes her to sunburn easily. OK, and because her hair is red. The evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) made lesbian-type advances on her, which Sonja rejected, leading Gedren to have Sonja’s family killed, which is why I’ve always said you should never reject a lesbian. Then, for added measure, Gedren had some of her men rape Sonja. (Comic books are fun! Wheeeee!) We learn all this backstory from an angel who visits Sonja and recaps it for her, in case she forgot. (“Hey, Sonja! Remember all that trauma you recently suffered?”) The angel also tells Sonja that she now has great sword-wielding powers, which will surely make up for everything else. Also, would it have killed you to bestow the sword powers before the murdering and raping occurred?
Meanwhile, or perhaps years later, a bunch of priestesses are getting ready to destroy a glowing green talisman that has become too powerful for them to control. It was with this talisman that God created the world, whereupon He apparently misplaced it, and the priestesses have been guarding it, waiting for God to show up and claim it at their lost and found. Only women can touch it without being destroyed, by the way, and it’s not clear how its power is used, or why it’s suddenly become a burden on the priestesses, who don’t appear to have any other duties aside from not letting anyone steal it.
Just as they’re about to destroy the talisman (don’t ask me how, but a lot of chanting is involved), the priestesses are interrupted by some of Queen Gedren’s warriors, who steal the artifact. You might be wondering how Queen Gedren happened to know that today was talisman-destroying day. Well, it’s because one of the priestesses Twittered it. No! I am kidding. It’s because the movie is stupid.
One of the priestesses escapes, injured, and runs into the forest, where she is met by Kalidor (Schwarzenegger), whom she sends on a mission to find her sister, who it turns out is Sonja. Kalidor fulfills this duty swiftly. He and Sonja have this conversation:
SONJA: I am Red Sonja.
KALIDOR: Your sister’s dying.
Well! Pleased to meet you too, Mr. No Time for Chit-Chat!
They hurry back to Sonja’s sister, whose name is Varna, and arrive just in time for her to die in Sonja’s arms. Could Varna’s life have been saved if Kalidor had stuck around and tended to her wounds rather than galloping off to notify her next of kin? Probably not, actually, since this is the Dark Ages. Even paper cuts were fatal in the Dark Ages, and Varna got shot with an arrow.
Before she dies, Varna tells Sonja that the wicked Queen Gedren was responsible for the attack, giving Sonja yet another reason to seek revenge on the psychotic sapphic monarch. She accomplishes this, you may rest assured, but boy howdy does it take a long time. The film’s strategy is to have Sonja go from village to village and engage in one sword fight after another, which gets boring even sooner than you’d expect. It gets boring very soon. In fact, it gets boring before the movie even starts, impossible though that may sound. There are movies with exciting sword fights, with swooping cameras and dazzling stunt work. And then there is “Red Sonja,” where the actors lurch around uncertainly and vaguely wave their cardboard weapons at each other.
Sonja has two major philosophies, both of which would make her a lot of fun at social gatherings should she ever be invited to one. Her first philosophy is that she hates Queen Gedren, which is understandable. The other is that she hates men, which is also understandable, since she was raped. She insists repeatedly that she doesn’t need a man to help her with anything, and that includes Kalidor. For his part, Kalidor keeps following her around anyway, usually arriving just in time to save her life or to lift something heavy. So the movie’s ultimate point is that while Sonja thinks she can live her life independently of men, she actually needs someone big and strong to protect her. That the someone in question should be a grunting, incomprehensible slab of oily beef — one who got top billing over her — must be particularly insulting.
Sometimes Sonja has conversations with Kalidor that go like this:
SONJA: (referencing something off in the distance) What is that place?
KALIDOR: Hablok, a great city.
SONJA: (starts to leave)
KALIDOR: Where are you going?
Where do you think she’s going, idiot?! She expressed interest in something, asked what it was called, then started to walk toward it. Did you think she was just wandering off aimlessly and needed your guidance? Tell you what, moron. Why don’t you just stand there quietly, and we’ll call you if we need a jar opened or a state’s economy ruined.
I believe I am obligated to mention that one of the people Red Sonja encounters in her travels is a spoiled young prince named Tarn (which I consistently misheard as “Tard”), whose kingdom was destroyed by Queen Gedren and the glowing green thing. Tarn has a loyal servant named Falkon who is the movie’s comic relief, at least to the extent that he is funny, which is to no extent at all.
Once the evil queen is thwarted and Sonja’s family avenged, the movie ends. That’s fine with me, of course, since this was a 90-minute film with only 30 minutes’ worth of plot, but I kind of wonder how the comic book story continues. Are there more lascivious, sexually predatory monarchs who need to be punished by Red Sonja? Are there more predicaments a simple gal like Sonja can get herself into so that burly European men can rescue her? At what point does Red Sonja become Flecks of Gray Sonja, followed by Way Too Red Again Sonja, followed by Trying Wigs For a While Sonja, followed by Giving Up and Just Getting Old Naturally Sonja? We may never know, or care.